Has Lebanon's army struck a deal with Hezbollah?

A young Sunni man in Beirut's Tariq el Jadida poses with his gun and balaclava  in his father's small grocery story.
A young Sunni man in Beirut's Tariq el Jadida poses with his gun and balaclava in his father's small grocery story. Hannah Allam / MCT

BEIRUT, Lebanon — With the beleaguered Lebanese army looking on, opposition and pro-government militias traded gunfire in northern Lebanon Monday in a continuation of the fighting that's killed at least 50 people and paralyzed most of Beirut.

Many Lebanese fear the bloodshed will spark a renewed civil war as the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah and its allies inflict repeated defeats on the pro-government militias fielded by Sunni Muslims and the Druze minority.

The Christian-led Lebanese Armed Forces, long touted as perhaps the country's last truly national institution, offered little resistance to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite allies. Instead, the army has acquiesced to Hezbollah's conquest of territory and sent soldiers to take over checkpoints handed over by Hezbollah.

A senior Lebanese military officer reached by phone declined to comment on whether the army is cooperating with Hezbollah, citing the sensitivity of the topic. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said that no American diplomat was available to discuss the issue.

U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Saniora said Saturday that Hezbollah and its allies were trying to stage a military coup.

"We've heard complaints from people who wanted law and order established and who wanted the military to step in and do more. We are very aware of that," said Mohamed Chatah, a senior adviser to Saniora. "But I wouldn't characterize what has happened as 'siding with' (the opposition)."

Politicians, analysts and fighters, however, said the army's performance suggests that the better-armed Hezbollah has struck a deal with Lebanese military brass. At the same time, there's bafflement that the army hasn't been able to defend the government despite receiving more than $400 million in U.S. aid since 2006.

"We know that Arab armies are mostly instruments for internal security, and even in this, the Lebanese army has failed," said Hilal Khashan, a Beirut-based political science professor and expert on Hezbollah. "They waited for Hezbollah to launch its attacks and prevail, and then they took charge of roadblocks."

""Sometimes, neutrality is a position," Khashan said. "There is a deal between Hezbollah and the commander of the army, no doubt about it. What the terms of such a deal is, we don't yet know. I wouldn't say the army is an extension of the opposition, but I would say it colluded with the opposition."

Allegations of complicity with the opposition could jeopardize the Western-backed ruling bloc's endorsement of army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian, for president. Lebanon has been without a president since November, when the former Syrian-allied president's term ended and political infighting stalled the naming of a successor.

According to Lebanon's unwritten 1943 National Pact, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.

The current round of violence began on May 7, when Hezbollah and its allies swept through Muslim West Beirut and the hills to the east in a series of quick street battles that upended the balance of power and demonstrated the opposition's military superiority.

Hezbollah acted in response to government threats to shut down the militant group's telecommunications network and to remove a Hezbollah loyalist who was accused of running a surveillance program from his security post at Beirut's airport. The army hastily rescinded the order after Hezbollah's violent retaliation.

The coordination with which Shiite militants turned over captured territory to the Lebanese army has led to speculation that army officials had learned of the attacks in advance and allowed them to occur. In addition, some Sunni fighters said in interviews that sympathetic Sunni military officers had tipped them off to encroaching Shiite forces and privately urged them to organize and fight back.

Even Sunnis frustrated with the Lebanese army's ineffectiveness acknowledged that the military is internally divided, and that Hezbollah and its allies have more sophisticated arsenals.

If the army entered the fray, several Sunnis in West Beirut predicted a humiliating and speedy defeat.

"The army is playing a game. Behind the scenes, they're divided, but they're trying to keep a united face," said Mohamed Nabi, 36, a Sunni who owns a clothing store in the West Beirut neighborhood of Tariq al Jadida, where some of the worst fighting occurred. "You'd have a Sunni officer who had information that a Sunni neighborhood was about to be attacked and, yes, he'd call and warn us."

As they did in Beirut, Lebanese soldiers in and around the busy, mostly Sunni city of Tripoli largely acted as a buffer Monday between the warring factions or assumed control of rebel checkpoints only after opposition forces had moved on, according to local media reports. At least six people were wounded Monday, according to Lebanese television.

Since Wednesday, at least 50 people have been confirmed dead with scores more injured. Local media put the death toll at 80 or above.

Perhaps in response to the mounting criticism, the military issued a statement late Monday that announced it would "halt violations . . . in accordance with the law, even if that leads to the use of force," starting at daybreak Tuesday.

The army, once derided by a government spokeswoman as "a bunch of boy scouts," remains a fledgling force that was able to progress only after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, when a popular uprising helped to end Syria's 29-year military presence in its smaller Mediterranean neighbor.

Last year, the Lebanese armed forces became an all-volunteer military and reportedly have about 70,000 ground troops.

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